In the Kitchen – an interview with Hannah Aliza Goldman & Coral Cohen

Photo by Emily Hewitt Photography; Graphic design by Alexandra Lenihan

When Creator/Writer/Performer Hannah Aliza Goldman’s one-person show In the Kitchen got cancelled this spring, she along with Director/Deviser Coral Cohen and Experimental Bitch Presents (the producing organization) had to radically re-imagine how to share the work. The end result is a play in a box. It’s also a recipe. It’s also a dessert. It’s also a guided meditation of sorts, a cooking show, and a story-telling device that explores cross-generational Arab-Jewish womanhood. (The first run sold out, but they’ve extended sales and you can order one here.) It arrived at my house late last week, and I spent several hours this weekend engaging with and experiencing it. I placed a chair in my kitchen, and there I remained. I watched the steam escape from the lid over a saucepan as I brewed a tea made from dried limes. I made a dish I’ve never made before, never even heard of before this. I sat with it. I cooked with it. Then I reached out to Hannah and Coral to discuss the process. The following is our conversation.

I was really struck by the use of “This is for you,” as a refrain throughout the piece. Sometimes it felt like a blessing, other times a toast. And it amplified who the “you” was — sometimes it seemed “you” were your ancestors and past, but because you’re sometimes speaking directly to us and sometimes speaking more indirectly about your life and past, I was able to take it in multiple ways at once. I guess the question is: Tell me about how you determined what journey to take with this piece. Does it feel like a journey inward? How does the audience (particularly one that is remote, unseen, activated after the fact) impact how this story was told for you?

Hannah Aliza Goldman: Wow!! That is really an incredible insight. I will say that I started this project from a place of profound loneliness.  I was too terrified to tell my own story because I couldn’t really reckon with it on my own.  Above anything, I really wanted to meet other people like me and share our stories, build a context for who I was and my family history.  So I guess the momentum started from the inside going outward.  But of course the journey has led inward as well.  Seeing the light reflected from others engaged the light within myself.

As for your second question – I’m reckoning with that right now!  As a theater performer, I’m used to engaging in the work and the audience at the same time, our energy feeding off of each other and getting feedback in real time.  Because of the pandemic that isn’t safe right now – so I feel like I’m sending off a piece of my heart in the mail, as cheesy as that sounds, without a guarantee for how it will be received or what kind of engagement will happen.  I think that has just made my team try to be super intentional about every detail in the piece.  My director, producers, and I all have “rehearsed” the piece ourselves multiple times to try to anticipate how the audience members will act and feel, but of course we can’t predict it.  It’s a scary and exciting challenge.  I’m really excited to hear how people interact with the work!

I also think a lot about my family who can’t experience the work, either because they don’t understand English very well, or they live far away, or they’ve passed away.  I hope I’ve made them proud, while also staying true to myself and my own journey.

Coral Cohen: That’s a great question! As someone who came in later in the process (I joined the team for the workshop performance in 2019), I was really concerned with the physical action the piece was prompting. In the performance, it was Hannah’s physicality and preparation of food that the audience was consuming that constituted the action and performer/audience relationship. When we were imagining another full live production, I was focused on developing the relationship between Hannah and the audience, giving her story and her voice a deeper connection with our audience. When we lost the ability to perform live, we had to think about how to develop that connection remotely, how to manifest that intimacy. The action transferred to the audience, and the intimacy became Hannah’s voice disembodied from her own action. So, as director and deviser, I was even more focused than I may have been in a live performance on how each moment was affecting our audience because they are performing the piece themselves. We were really focused on making it a pleasurable, easeful process to perform so that the performance and (literal) consumption of the piece was integrated and seamless. The multiplicity of “you” that you mention, the “you” as audience, “you” as ancestor, “you” as interview subject, etc. is also a way to connect us. A large theme of the piece is that by making the food of our culture, we can begin to connect to our ancestors and heal some of the wounds of erasure, colonialism, disconnection. So, by asking you (the audience) to physically enact this, we are sharing that connection, we are inviting you to bridge those gaps and (maybe just for a moment) understand our pain and joy, to connect to the “you” we are trying to reach through cooking. At least that’s the hope!

A great deal of the richness of the piece comes from your ability to present such an amazing breadth of multi-generational female voices throughout the piece. How did you find these people? Were they also part of the pre-pandemic “in person” version, and if so, how did your having these voices as resources change or complicate the way you constructed the audio play?

HG: The people whose voices were featured in the audio play were actually the first part of constructing this piece.  I was commissioned to make an original performance at the International Human Rights Arts Festival on my experience of my first trip to Morocco.  The trip was incredible and fulfilling in so many ways, but it was also difficult and isolating – realizing how much of my own history had been suppressed, both by white supremacy but also by patriarchy within Mizrahi community.  I wanted to talk to other Jewish women with heritage in Arab lands, to hear their stories and form community.  I sent the word out via email to the JFREJ Mizrahi/Sephardi Caucus; some folks contacted friends over email and Facebook, and I set up interviews, some in person and some over the phone.  It was in these conversations that the imagery of grandmothers in the kitchen rang strong, and so the impetus of the piece was born.

In the pre-pandemic version of the piece, I prepared food onstage and engaged in abstract movements, with the montage of interviews as the audio soundtrack.  Later on, I experimented with adding my own voice and the dictation of a recipe.  But the voices came first.

In constructing the audio play, I wanted to take the most important themes from these interviews and weave it in with my own writing and the recipe from Awafi.  So the voices became one of the elements, rather than the central mode, of storytelling.  There were certain stories I loved that we had to cut, just for the sake of clarity and flow with the other audio elements.  But I think we did a good job of representing the important imagery that the voices brought up.

I loved the idea of dictated recipes; a recipe being something spoken, not written. It changed the way I was able to take in certain stories, and made me wonder how you placed a particular story at a specific point. Sometimes we are at rest and are capable of listening differently, but when we are sharing in the labor and someone is speaking to us, it’s a different (super pleasurable) experience. How did you use the durational quality of the recipe to construct the play as a whole? It seems like a really great puzzle to solve.

HG: In this iteration of the piece – the audio play – we started with the recipe as the backbone.  We constructed everything, including the narrative, around the timing of the cooking.  All of the tracks were constructed around the bake time, and we also had to carefully place the narrative elements in as well.  We wanted to make sure people could sit and listen to the difficult parts, like the part about Zionist erasure and internalized anti-Arab racism.  We knew that was going to be difficult for many people to hear, so we wanted the audience to be stationary and present, and chose to place that part when the biscuits are baking in the oven.  The other parts, like the montage about all the delicious kinds of food, we wanted to come when people needed something upbeat, and so we placed it when they’re forming the pastries.  It was a really cool way to structure the piece thematically – rather than just thinking about a traditional dramatic narrative, with climax and denouement, we had to think of it in relationship to the cooking.  It was a really cool and fun challenge.

CC: Ditto to everything Hannah said! The framework of the recipe was a helpful constraint for us to fill in the structure, to make rules that created the world of the piece and allowed us to fill in the content in a thoughtful (in some ways, more experimental) order that didn’t conform to a traditional arc. We were very aware of the active vs. passive sections of the piece and wanted to make sure that the content was digestible based on what was happening as well as what made sense thematically.

A line that stood out to me in particular was, How do you define safety? In the piece itself, this is often referenced to within the context of reclamation of identity (in particular those identities that seem contradictory), but I found myself expanding it to spaces, food, trying to answer it for myself. The kitchen seems like a safe place (though sometimes fraught for me, ours isn’t that big and is kind of hard to share so I flee it upon occasion). How do you feel in the kitchen? What are your safe spaces?

HG: I think about that question all the time.  It’s so profound.  Is safety just physical, or is it also mental, emotional, spiritual?  How do we create safe spaces where all of our being can feel safe, supported, and loved?

As someone who has had severe allergies my whole life, this definitely applies to food for me as well.  Whenever I eat food that someone else has prepared, I’m engaging, in some level, in a bit of risk.  This actually is something that disconnected me from Mizrahi community for a long time, because so many dishes containing nuts and sesame were a physical risk to me – but the emotional and spiritual reward of eating that food with community gives me such a sense of safety and warmth that it’s worth it.  I joke about this in the beginning of the piece, that the recipe and ingredients we’ve shared with everyone is something that isn’t safe for me to eat because of the sesame seeds.  But I just have to find different ways of engaging with it, like substituting nigella seeds.  When a Mizrahi person makes a dish for me and remembers my allergies, I can’t tell you the feeling of love and warmth that washes over me – it’s the best.

It’s actually interesting because for many years I wasn’t that interested in the kitchen or being at home.  I always was busy, had a lot of extracurriculars, and didn’t like being at home.  I think on some level this was because I was dealing with a lot of unaddressed anxiety issues – I wasn’t at home in my own self and always running away from my problems.  Engaging in this piece has made me comfortable not just in my home, but in the home of myself.  I think the kitchen is kind of a physical metaphor for nourishment.  How comfortable are we with nourishing ourselves and our loved ones?  Is the activity of cooking something that drains us or fulfills us?  I think all women and femme people have a complicated relationship with the kitchen, because patriarchy has told us it’s our “proper place,” so the kitchen is never a neutral space.  It’s actually been part of my process of rebuffing patriarchy that I claim the kitchen as my own, a space I enter out of choice, for my own joy and fulfillment.

I’ve made my kitchen and my bedroom a safe haven, and there are also places, like my best friend’s apartment, or my mom’s house, that feel safe.  But I also think that people can make a safe space.  When I’m with loved ones, I feel safe no matter where we are.  I think that’s something we’ve all had to rework in the pandemic.  We can’t hang out indoors, so we have to come together in a public park, which in New York City means making a safe space with the buskers and the drink sellers and the occasional rat, and set up our blanket and food and feel safe around each other even in a public space.

CC: Yes, safety is very complicated! I think (especially now) we are all struggling with the feeling of safety. With an invisible killer and incompetent and untrustworthy institutions we are struggling to find physical and emotional safety. Many people (especially at the start of the pandemic) have found that safety in the kitchen. It makes sense as somewhere where you can control most variables and create something nourishing. Personally, I was not a cook AT ALL before I was forced to make most of my meals in the spring and by necessity I turned to the kitchen for my sustenance as well as a form of entertainment and structure in a time when that had largely left my life.

Not only had I never been drawn to the kitchen, I grew up with two parents who (despite both having mothers who were amazing cooks) could barely make pasta. So, the kitchen has never felt “safe” for me. But, in the last few months I have been attempting to re-discover my grandmothers’ recipes (or at least versions of them) and although I can’t recreate them perfectly it has given me some kind of mooring in something outside my little world. I think the kitchen will always be a bit fraught for me.

What was it like to work on this piece during the pandemic? What changed? What stayed the same?

HG: It was really challenging.  Emotionally, it was difficult to engage with such sensitive material when I’m physically by myself, talking to the team over Zoom.  I decided that all creative rehearsals would be in my bedroom so I could feel safe.  After rehearsal, I would take a walk outside or go to my kitchen, just to take a break.  Sometimes my director and I would meet in the park, and it felt really good to be with each other.  Then, once we got into recording, it all took place in my closet.  It definitely was a weird experience that a lot of people have gone through this year, where the physical barriers of work and home got really blurred.

The biggest thing about the piece that’s changed is not being able to feed everyone and talk together after the piece occurs.  So I text pictures of the food to the team, and bring some over to friends.  My mom tested the box and ate her biscuits with me afterwards on FaceTime, which was nice.  I will say that I definitely still have a good amount of ba’be’ in my fridge.

What stayed the same, and perhaps got even stronger, was our desire for connection and community.  We continued to collaborate with Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, the Sephardic Mizrahi Q Network, and the International Human Rights Arts festival, to spread the word online.  Throughout the process my director and I really had to care for each other and our relationship grew stronger.  I also think that in 2020, so much of the public conversation is about health, care, and safety – what that truly means and how we have to put in a greater collective effort.  This is what the piece has been about all along, and I think now those themes resonate even more strongly.

CC: Working on this piece was extremely challenging in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Communication is such a big part of collaboration and there was so much missing communication without body language. I mean, on zoom, you can’t even (really) make eye contact! It’s difficult to connect when so much of that is lost. I really missed the downtime of rehearsal life–before and after rehearsal, breaks, etc. The in-between times in which we would make small talk, gossip, and just be together. There’s so much trust and camaraderie built in those little moments. And yes, the blurring of home and work is something many of us are feeling right now. It’s difficult to turn on and off and so you’re always in some middle-ground, mostly focused on zoom in rehearsal (while the cat’s meowing, the partner’s cooking, etc.) and then a low hum of anxiety and creativity disrupting everything else when you’re not.

I think it made the work more urgent, for me because it was so present in every aspect of my life. Getting the timing right was more important to me, because we were really asking something of our audience, asking them for a bit more intimacy and attention than we would be in a theatre. What stayed the same was the core themes of the piece, and I actually think that even though this new format was borne out of necessity, it has embodied these themes more effectively than a live performance might have. And I think that the piece is needed more now. People in and out of this community are craving this kind of experience where they can use their own hands to create something, where they can feel intimacy and connection and transportation within their own homes, in their own time, without a screen.

If you find yourself looking for information about Experimental Bitch, you can visit their website here. In addition to In the Kitchen, they are in the midst of Bitchin’ Collabs: a new residency curated by Miranda Haymon for BIPOC/TGNC artists developing new, interdisciplinary works, and their first play commission, Tanya’s LIT CLIT, by playwright Emma Goldman-Sherman. This is EBP’s COVID-safe 2020-21 season whose theme is Intergenz, exploring intergenerational legacy, culture and collaboration.

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